According to Breyer, “Each individual Breyer model is prepped and finished by hand, and then turned over to the painting department for hand painting and detailing. In all, some 20 artisans work on each individual model horse, creating an exquisite hand-made model horse that is as individual as the horse that inspired it.”
What could possibly be done to make Breyers any more beautiful?
That’s easy. Adorn them with handcrafted, customized tack.
Prepare to be blown away.
Introducing Rachel Fail. Horse lover. Mom. Professional Breyer tack maker. Each of her tack sets is customized to fit a certain Breyer horse’s body and its discipline needs, and is intricately and meticulously designed to ensure upmost quality. (Where was she all of my childhood?)
For Rachel, it’s the little things in life. Literally. The passion may be specific, but it came from a common childhood captivation: the collection and adoration of Breyer horses. Like most other horse crazy kids, Rachel grew up loving and caring for her own Breyer herd. So, not surprisingly, this is where she got the inspiration to start making little things for them as she got older. When she was around 9 or 10 years old, she successfully made herself a teeny western saddle.
But, as many kids so often do, Rachel stopped collecting Breyer models. Life went on: she graduated high school, moved out, and got married. After a number of years, she decided to go back to her parents’ house to clean out her room. It wasn’t long before she stumbled across her first little homemade saddle. “This is cool,” she thought, and put it up for sale on ebay. It quickly sold for $80. Surprised, she decided to keep making more, and honed her skills to include crafting bridles and breastplates as well.
When she made the choice to get more involved, she realized just how big of a hobby Breyer tack making is: there is an entire network of people out there who specialize in the trade. As her interest grew, she found that her fascination was really centered on leather craftsmanship.
When she got into the business in 2008, making mini masterpieces was really something she just did at home when she wanted some downtime that was also a bit lucrative, since she was busy riding and working as an accountant at the time. But the more she did it, the better she got at it. When she had a baby a year and half ago, the increased time she spent at home was also an opportunity to become more productive in her artwork. Tack making is an enjoyable way for her to work from home but still spend time with her little girl.
“I’ve always been fascinated with arts and craft types of things, but this is so cool because my love of horses and my passion for the whole equestrian world can be miniaturized,” she told me.
And that’s something she really appreciates, since having real horses is no longer an option for the time being.
“Two and a half years ago my husband joined the United States Coast Guard, so we can’t have horses at the moment because we move too much. They’re not in the cards right now, but this is an outlet for me to do my horse thing. And there are so many amazing people in the hobby,” she explained.
Apart from her beautiful works of art, what really struck me about Rachel was her incredible humility in spite of her talent. She spent a large part of the interview highlighting the many great resources the industry has for anyone who wants to get involved, and the admiration she has for those who spend their time supplying tack makers like her.
Interestingly, it turns out that there’s actually a market for selling materials made specifically for custom Breyer adornments.
“Rio Rondo is a wonderful site,” Rachel said. “A woman started it back in the ‘90s, and basically created it as a place for model tack making. It’s wonderful. You can actually buy your own model tack set with little pieces of hardware that you assemble yourself for $25. I buy a lot of my supplies there: tiny English stirrups with treads, bits, buckles…there’s a whole world of model horse collecting out there. Tandy Leather was also a big company I used frequently. I use what’s called petite calf skin hide–it’s much thinner than regular leather. Actually, the thinnest cowhide you can buy is tooling leather. Regular tooling is 2-3 oz, but it’s too thick for the scale of model horse sizes. So I buy petite tooling, which is about 1-1 ½ oz.”
Although Rachel doesn’t show Breyer horses herself, she sells her tack to people who are passionate about the hobby, who are usually members of the National Model Horse Show Association (NAMSHA). There’s actually a showing circuit that people follow, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles to put their beautiful horses on display.
“The cool thing about the model horse world is that a lot of the same principles apply to real life,” Rachel said. “The judges are real sticklers for everything being positioned and arranged just the way it should be. You need the correct bit, the right equipment for the discipline…it really requires a lot of knowledge about the real thing. It’s a very good educational tool for people who might never have that opportunity in the real world.”
Rachel really only takes custom tack orders, from customers who know exactly what they want for a particular horse in mind. But every once in a while she’ll make a piece and put it up for offers on Ebay. Most of her sets sell in the mid-$300 range, and the main miniature tack marketplace is www.modelhorsesalespages.com. Tack makers like her are at the higher level of their industry, and put their effort into making their tack as realistic as possible. For that reason, custom orders are more their style: if they put it on a public market, the bidding wars would get absolutely ridiculous.
“Many tack makers go for quality over quantity,” she said. “On average they’ll make about 10 sets a year, and I usually make slightly over this number.”
This year has been especially prolific for Rachel—she’s made 16 spectacular sets. But that doesn’t mean she spends any less time on her works of art: each set requires about 20 hours of work to meet her standards. Sometimes they may even take 30 hours, depending on how many hiccups she runs into in the creative process. Designing and creating these little things can be infuriating!
One must be incredibly scrupulous when taking on a project, to say the least. Rachel takes a razor blade to shave the back of the leather off, which is extremely time consuming and has the potential to be quite maddening if she cuts through the leather.
“You just have to practice, practice, practice,” she explained. “I’ve done it for countless hours, and sometimes even my knife slips and cuts through the leather, and then I have to start all over. It can be so frustrating because you’re dealing with things on such a tiny scale, and if they’re not perfect you have to start over and redo it.”
One of the things Rachel is especially stringent about is the symmetry of her products. She emphasizes its importance on her most recent blogpost:
“Symmetry. One of my favorite words having a tad of OCD. Nothing is more important in a saddle’s structure. It’s a chain reaction if one piece is out of place. When the pommel is crooked, that makes the seat crooked, which makes the upper skirt crooked, etc. Imagine spending countless hours tooling something and then having it look sloppy when put together! It’s a slippery slope that can ruin all your hard work, so it’s important to take the time and assemble it symmetrically.
“I make marks on the upper skirt before assembling it to make sure both my rear conchos are symmetrical. A hint: It’s a lot harder to make accurate measurements when it’s already being put together. Make sure that the horn is centered on the gullet, and the rear cinch is mounted symmetrically, and your saddle will look neat and clean!”
From Rachel’s website regarding the set above:
“Here’s my first gaming pad, which I had a good reference photo for. I got to put my sewing skills to the test, and the result was a good mini version of what I set out to replicate. I took a small piece of the green leather to a fabric store and matched it to a quilting square so the lime greens match perfectly. Making a pattern for the saddle pad, I sewed the edges (inside out) leaving a place to turn it (always on a straight edge to make it easier), and then used a black accent thread to “quilt” it onto felt. I sewed it onto a larger piece of felt and then trimmed it down to fix exactly. The wear leathers and corner pieces are glued on with tacky glue (great for fabrics!).”
Needless to say, this lady knows what she’s doing.
Getting Into It
So, how does one get into this business? Rachel adamantly encourages anyone who is looking to start the hobby, and she’s anything but competitive–her blog posts are dotted with tips to help aspiring tack makers succeed, and she readily shares her insights and techniques.
She’s also more than happy to point people in the right direction when it comes to buying materials.
“There are tons of good resources for supplies for people who want to get into it,” she explained. “I suggest that people order a western saddle starter kit from Riorando,” she said. “I do all my English saddles myself and design the patterns by hand, but Riorando has a decent western saddle with all of the leather and everything you need for just under $30. It’s not a high end set, and you have to invest in tooling leather and the tools for making them, but there are a lot of really good resources out there. There’s such a community of hobbyists out there—more than I even thought was possible.”
And, she said, once you get into the business, you develop an eye for picking out designer tools.
“I found that earrings work perfectly for crystal centered ponchos. I couldn’t figure it out, but they really do the job,” she laughed. “You can’t just go to the store and get hardware, but after doing this for a while you get to where you just have miniature goggles on all the time! You can use this for that, that for this…”
Rachel’s completed work includes dozens of sets, and I don’t know about you, but I WANT THEM ALL. If you want to see them all, click here to view her entire collection.